At a recent event, I walked on stage taking my place front and center in front of 500 CEOs as their keynote speaker. I confidently began my talk and then, unexpectedly I gave a small gasp and walked off stage. The room went silent. There were a few murmurs, some shuffling feet and turning of heads. “What just happened? “Is he okay?”
In this communication and connection ‘gap’ between me and the audience, there was a palpable void. The human brain does not do well with gaps and immediately kicks in with stories to fill in the gap. But the question is, how did they fill it? Many filled the gap with assumptions while some turned to others to ask questions in search for more information to build a narrative. Each person, drew upon past experiences, patterns of behaving, beliefs, and ways of reacting to help make sense of what was happening. Brains fired to come up with a narrative and ways to re-connect to feel more stable and grounded. The challenge is, they were all wrong.
Finally, I came back on stage and said: “I want you all to pay attention to how you are feeling right at this moment. Notice what are you thinking and feeling. Welcome to the experience that we all have at some point every day in this complex, globally interconnected, digitalized world. It’s called the ‘narrative gap’ and it wreaks havoc in our homes, communities and workplaces.”
There is an evolution of technology, digital communications, hybrid workspaces and computer-generated experiences that is transforming society more than we can imagine creating more and more of these gaps every day. On top of this technology evolution are major shifts in our individual and collective values triggered by a pandemic, social unrest and an increasingly diverse workforce.
Amid these upheavals, here is what many may not be seeing. Our relational skills, emotional intelligence, and communication abilities haven’t advanced at the same speed of the technology evolution and social shifts. This convergence of advancing technologies and lagging human capacities is creating massive unseen narrative gaps in communications and connections within our workplaces.
I believe this could be one of the hidden drivers of the Great Resignation as people leave their employers in search of more meaningful purpose and connections at work.
But how specifically are these gaps contributing to the Great Resignation? Let’s take a look.
A BIT of HISTORY
Fifty plus years ago, many people lived and worked in the same community for a lifetime and died very close to where they were born. They went to the same schools, churches, grocery stores, barber and beauty shops as their friends, neighbors, parents, grandparents, and teachers! Opportunities abound to build connections in person. Communication through common stories and experiences was the norm. Not today.
Twenty plus years ago, I was writing my final paper to graduate in studies dealing with human emotions and it was difficult to find any information on the role of emotion in the workplace. “Soft skills,” as they were called, didn’t hold the same respect as the skills to run a finance department, sell, or lead. Fortunately, brave leaders began to embrace the realities that lifetime employment wasn’t the goal, people have choices where they work, and ‘soft skills’ when not valued and developed create disengagement costing organizations millions in lost revenue and increased operational costs.
I was having this conversation with Dr. Al Ringleb, JD, PhD, President and Founder, CIMBA; Co-Founder, The Neuroleadership Institute, and he summed it up perfectly. “These advancements in technology have allowed us to willingly move apart from each other while simultaneously throwing us together, mixing cultures, integrating nationalities and transforming our former local worlds into one world that is global in all important aspects. As a consequence, we really don’t know each other, but we still want to believe we do.”
That last sentence began to haunt me. As Dr. Al and I explored the deeper implications of this phenomenon in our present-day workplaces, the idea came to us to look at it through the lens of neuro and behavioral sciences. Once we did this, things started to make sense.
In today’s virtual, hybrid world, gaps in information and genuine connection are the norm. We don’t see our coworkers and managers with the same frequency or interact directly with our leaders as often. We don’t see people outside of work like we used to. This means that we don’t understand others’ facial expressions, micro-expressions, quirks, nuances, and tones in communication. It means we don’t truly know each other.
Instead, what we have is a “consoling illusion that we know each other.” These common, unspoken narrative gaps in our communications and connection with others contribute to people feeling disconnected at work.
Why is this a problem?
We aren’t naturally wired for the current levels of uncertainty, upheaval and disconnection in our human interactions. Our brains are working overtime to fill in the gaps with narratives based on frames of reference that are not predictable causing mass miscommunication and misunderstanding. So, we leave to search for meaning and connection somewhere else.
THERE IS GOOD NEWS
Fortunately, we all have the resources within our reach to help solve this problem. I believe there is one specific tool where our innovation and new thinking should begin. This tool can be modernized immediately to help address the “Narrative Gap in Leadership.”
The Tool: Leadership Branding
For as long as I can remember, the term “branding” was associated with the sales and marketing functions. I contend that personal branding is an innovation we can use to better communicate and connect with a dispersed workforce in a digital age. A leadership brand conveys who you are and what you believe as a leader. It answers the question ‘why should I work for you?’
Using the methods that marketers use like video, blogs, social media, articles, old school phone calls, texts, and emails, today’s leader can share more of who they are. They can build a more complete narrative of how they see their organization’s present circumstances and future potential. Communicating to their audience what they believe about leadership, teamwork, vision, values, dealing with uncertainty, etc., they can craft a coherent story about what they want to achieve in partnership with everyone in the organization. It is critical that the leader also shares their personal origin story in their branding. An ounce of vulnerability from a leader goes far in today’s world.
If you have ever met someone that you have “followed” and you already feel like you know them; this is the goal. The quantity and frequency of our personal communications to the market about how we think and what we believe allowed not only other people to get to know us, but for us to get to know each other—essentially filling in the narrative gap so when we met, the feeling of a relationship was already established. A connection was already there. The in-person experience only enhanced it and drove it even deeper.
We can start today to innovate our leadership brand by modernizing our communication and connection styles. By leveraging the lessons and methods of branding experts, we can be thought leaders and give our people ideas and actions to hold on to, execute, and believe in.
Here’s your challenge: Build your personal brand from your unique qualities and experiences. People have choices. Share who you are! Let them know why they matter and why they should stay so that any time there is a gap, they pull from your personal story to fill it with your intended leadership brand. It’s one change that can help improve the “Narrative Gap in Leadership” and stem the Great Resignation. It’s one change that has the potential to make all the difference to you, your people and your organization.
Adapted from AMPLIFY YOUR INFLUENCE: Transform How You Communicate and Lead (Wiley, April 26, 2022) by René Rodriguez.